With International Women’s Day, March 8, on the horizon, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres blasted the intractable power of patriarchy, the cause of overwhelming gender injustice and an abuse of historical proportions, in his view.
“Just as slavery and colonialism were a stain on previous centuries, women’s inequality should shame us all in the twenty-first,” he said in a speech, “Women and Power,” to a university audience in New York. “Because it is not only unacceptable; it is stupid.”
His remarks on Feb. 27 at the New School, a progressive university in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village — which was awarding him an honorary doctorate — sounded a lot like an indictment. Man-made cultures still cling to powers, publicly obvious or more subtle, that circumscribe the lives of women and girls, he said. “The state of women’s rights remains dire,” he noted.
“Inequality and discrimination are the norm, everywhere,” he said. “Progress has slowed to a standstill and, in some cases, been reversed.” He had a long list of examples.
“There is a strong and relentless pushback against women’s rights,” he told his audience, naming some of the setbacks. (PassBlue is affiliated with the New School.)
“Violence against women, including femicide, is at epidemic levels. . . . Legal protections against rape and domestic violence are being diluted or rolled back in some places. Rape within marriage continues to be legal in 34 countries. Women’s sexual and reproductive rights are under threat from different sides. . . . Policies that penalize women, like austerity and coercive reproduction, are back in fashion.”
Everything he said was true, as any advocate for women would agree. When it came time for audience questions, however, he got the really tough one: What can the UN do?
Guterres fell back on the default position of all his predecessors. He talks to governments, he said.
At the UN, as everyone who follows it closely knows, a secretary-general works at the mercy of 193 governments. Guterres, whose first term ends in 2021, has to maneuver through the demands of big powers — China, Russia the United States, the European Union — and regional blocs with big-enough numbers to ignore or defy agreements they have signed. (As to whether he will run for a second term, Guterres said coyly that he didn’t know.)
The African Union is one of the most effective groups among the regional blocs, but there are others, such as Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which can be defensive when pressed, as it has been in dealing with one of its own members, Myanmar.
Among many governments, including the US, women’s rights are not a priority. Politics, ideologies and claims of national sovereignty or cultural imperatives remain barriers to progress. There is no better example right now than the 64th annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which meets on March 9 in a truncated one-day session in response to concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19). No postponement date has been set, as it depends on the evolution of the virus.
At the same time, criticism is being leveled at the World Health Organization, an autonomous agency that is part of the UN system, for its early reluctance to declare the health threat a pandemic. The image of WHO was damaged in 2014 by similar early decisive inaction on the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014, when its African regional office was apparently holding back or tempering warnings.
The agency, based in Geneva, depends on the financial support of governments, and it is now threatened by its largest donor, the US, under Donald Trump. His administration proposed in February to cut its 2021 funding to WHO by half, just as the coronavirus crisis was emerging. Again, there is nothing the UN as an organization can do about such a plan.
The UN also cannot deploy a peacekeeping mission or open a human-rights office in any country without negotiations (often lengthy and fraught) with the country’s government. The UN has no standing military force, requiring more negotiating with governments — more like begging — to “borrow” soldiers and civilian police for its peacekeeping operations across the world. When peacekeeping troops commit offenses against civilians in the “host country,” the UN can only request that they be removed for investigation and trial in their home countries.
UN human-rights policies and activities are an especially touchy subject in governments. The US, Israel’s unwavering supporter in the UN, left the Human Rights Council in 2018 and no longer has a formal standing in the body. But that did not stop Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, from sending a belligerent message to Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, after her office released a years-old report from the Council on companies that are considered complicit in Israeli building and development of Jewish settlements on internationally recognized Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Some companies are American.
“As I made clear on February 13, we will stand up for our companies, and we will stand by our ally Israel,” Pompeo said. “The United States will continue to engage UN officials and member states on this matter and take necessary steps to counter efforts related to the list. We are urging UN member states to join us in repudiating publication of the database and to oppose any expansion of the mandate. The State Department will monitor the reaction of the United Nations and member states closely and will firmly oppose any efforts to use this list against U.S. companies.”
Finally, but not exhaustively, when a secretary-general wants to make high-level appointments, candidates’ professional qualifications are not often the deciding factor as rival governments or regional blocs compete to fill positions. On this count, Secretary-General Guterres has done well for women, as he told his audience at the New School.
“Gender equality is part of the DNA of the United Nations,” he said. “The equal rights of women and men are included in the Charter — our founding document. As we mark our seventy-fifth anniversary this year, along with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, we are redoubling our efforts to support women’s rights across the board.”
By the beginning of 2020, Guterres achieved gender parity in his senior management group — a kind of cabinet — and among heads of missions abroad known as resident coordinators.
Yet in his speech to the university audience in New York, Guterres skirted briefly the two issues that must underpin all real, sustainable gains in women’s lives. Reproductive rights — a fancy, safe way of saying the rights of women to control their own bodies — were solidly endorsed in the 1990s in two groundbreaking global conferences. In 1994, there was the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, which beat back the most conservative opponents of sexual independence. The result ignited a backlash that continues today. The Cairo conference was followed by the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, which is now being marked and parsed at the UN under the slogan Beijing+25.
The second important goal for women’s rights is legal. This does not mean only passing antidiscrimination laws against women and girls, which are disregarded almost everywhere. Advocates say it must also include expanding roles for women in law and justice systems, where women — not just the poorest, often illiterate women — can be trained to use and be accepted by courts and believed by judges who dismiss too many cases against spouses or the police.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.